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When Chilon came to Delphi he thought to dedicate to the god the firstlings, as it were, of his own wisdom, and engraved upon a column these three maxims: "Know thyself"; "Nothing overmuch"; and the third, "A pledge, and ruin is nigh." Each of these maxims, though short and laconic,1 displays deep reflection. [2] For the maxim "Know thyself" exhorts us to become educated and to get prudence, it being only by these means that a man may come to know himself, either because it is chiefly those who are uneducated and thoughtless that think themselves to be very sagacious—and that, according to Plato, is of all kinds of ignorance the worst2—or because such people consider wicked men to be virtuous, and honest men, on the contrary, to be of no account; for only in this one way may a man know himself and his neighbour—by getting an education and a sagacity that are superior. [3]

Likewise, the maxim "Nothing overmuch" exhorts us to observe due measure in all things and not to make an irrevocable decision about any human affairs, as the Epidamnians once did. This people, who dwelt on the shores of the Adriatic, once quarrelled among themselves, and casting red-hot masses of iron right into the sea they swore an oath that they would never make up their mutual enmity until the masses of iron should be brought up hot out of the sea.3 And although they had sworn so severe an oath and had taken no thought of the admonition "Nothing overmuch," later under the compulsion of circumstances they put an end to their enmity, leaving the masses of iron to lie cold in the depths of the sea. [4]

And as for the maxim "A pledge, and ruin is nigh," some have assumed that by it Chilon was advising against marriage; for among most Greek peoples the agreement to marry is also called a "pledge," and this is confirmed by the common experience of men in that the worst and most numerous ills of life are due to wives. But some writers say that such an interpretation is unworthy of Chilon, because if marriage were destroyed life could not continue, and that he declares that "ruin" is nigh to such pledges as those made in connection with contracts and with agreements on other matters, all of which are concerned with money. As Euripides says:“ No pledge I give, observing well the loss
Which those incur who of the pledge are fond;
And writings there at Pytho say me nay.
Eur. fr. 923 [Nauck(2)] [5]

But some also say that it is not the meaning of Chilon nor is it the act of a good citizen, not to come to the aid of a friend when he needs help of this kind; but rather that he advises against strong asseverations, against eagerness in giving pledges, and against irrevocable decisions in human affairs, such as the Greeks once made in connection with their victory over Xerxes. For they took oath at Plataea4 that they would hand down enmity to the Persians as an inheritance even to their children's children, so long as the rivers run into the sea, as the race of men endures, and as the earth brings forth fruit; and yet, despite the binding pledge they had taken against fickle fortune, after a time they were sending ambassadors to Artaxerxes, Xerxes' son, to negotiate a treaty of friendship and alliance.5 [6]

Chilon's precepts, though brief, embrace the entire counsel necessary for the best life, since these pithy sayings of his are worth more than all the votive offerings set up in Delphi. The golden ingots of Croesus6 and other handiwork like them have vanished and were but great incentives to men who chose to lift impious hands against the temple; but Chilon's maxims are kept alive for all time, stored up as they are in the souls of educated men and constituting the fairest treasure, on which neither Phocians nor Gauls would be quick to lay their hands.7Const. Exc. 4, pp. 283-285.

1 Chilon was a Spartan (Laconian) ephor in 556 B.C.

2 The ignorance, Plato would say, that mistakes itself for knowledge.

3 According to Hdt. 1.165 the Phocaeans emphasized in a similar manner their resolve never to return to their native city.

4 In 479 B.C.

5 This would probably refer to the Peace of Callias in 448 (or earlier), but in it there was no question of an alliance. However, in 412 Sparta made a treaty with Persia against Athens.

6 See Hdt. 1.50.

7 The reference is to the sack of Delphi by the Phocians in 356-346 B.C. and by the Gauls in 279 B.C.

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